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Wu Sangui — A Controversial Traitor of the Ming and Qing Dynasties

Wu Sangui (1616 — 1678), courtesy name Changbo, was an exceptional general widely considered a traitor who had betrayed all regimes he had pledged loyalty to.

Ming Dynasty, Shun Dynasty, and Qing Dynasty, those regimes that Wu Sangui had pledged loyalty to, all were betrayed by him and encountered huge losses. 

However, his betrayal behaviors were not just pure evil due to the complicated historical situations. 

General Wu Sangui of Qing Dynasty in History of China

Brave and Loyal General Wu Sangui

Born into a military family of the Ming Dynasty, Wu Sangui was brave, excellent at martial arts, and had achieved a good score in the Military Imperial Examination.

Wu Sangui and his father, both distinguished generals, served in the Ming army, particularly in the Line of Defense troop established by General Sun Chengzong.

Once, when hundreds of cavalry enemies enclosed his father, Wu Sangui led a couple of his guards to rush into the encirclement, defeated way outnumbered enemies and successfully saved his father after intense battles. 

Beacon Towers on Ming Great Wall in Jinshanling Section

Ming Dynasty Great Wall in Jinshanling Section in Hebei Province, Photo by Gucheng.

Afterward, he was promoted several times because of his braveness and excellent military skills.

The Manchu regime tried many times to summon him to surrender, with big money and power, including his powerful uncle and brother, who had already complied and frequently persuaded him to do the same, but he never accepted.

Soon, Wu Sangui became the chief commander of an extremely elite cavalry troop, tasked with guarding the most important military site in the Great Wall: the Shanhai Pass. Inside lay the Ming Empire, while outside loomed the nomadic Qing regime.

At that time, Wu Sangui was an exceptionally brave and talented general loyal to his emperor. 

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass

Main Gate of the Shanhai Pass in Qinhuangdao City

A Difficult Decision in Choosing Sides


Then, an uprising army of refugees and peasants marched toward Ming’s capital, Beijing, and Wu Sangui was summoned to come back to protect this city.

However, on his way to Beijing, the rebel army occupied the city, and his emperor Zhu Youjian committed suicide.  

The leader of this rebellion army, Li Zicheng (1606 — 1645), now the King of the newly established Shun Dynasty (1644 — 1645), summoned Wu Sangui and his elite army to comply. 

Wu Sangui and his army faced a difficult situation.


He lacked the strength to avenge his late emperor or establish an independent kingdom.


He was unwilling to surrender to his long-time enemy, the Manchu regime, yet he also hesitated to surrender to Li Zicheng, who had just overthrown the Ming Dynasty.

But he had to make a choice, as he was surrounded by powerful enemies who were waiting for his answer. 

In the end, Wu Sangui decided to surrender to Li Zicheng’s Shun Dynasty. 

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620

Cavalry Army of the Late Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

A 'Plausible' Tricky Pact

However, Li Zicheng didn't believe in Wu Sangui's loyalty, so he imprisoned Wu's father and the whole family as hostages; many of the former ministers of the Ming Empire were also humiliated and tortured.

In some gossip, Li Zicheng also occupied Wu Sangui's favorite concubine named Chen Yuanyuan, which was believed to be a crucial reason for Wu's changing mind. 

Wu Sangui promised Li Zicheng to comply and spent months negotiating or pretending to discuss relevant issues. 

At the same time, Wu Sangui also secretly agreed with the Manchu Regent Dorgon: the Manchu regime would help Wu Sangui to defeat Li Zicheng and assist another prince of Ming to re-establish the Ming Dynasty in southern China, while Manchu would occupy northern China.


Besides, the Manchu army wouldn't slaughter any civilians of Ming.  

Wu Sangui probably didn't realize that sometimes, only equal strength could lead to a relatively fair agreement; one side needed to be strong and capable enough to ensure the other would adhere to the terms.

Portrait of Manchu Regent Dorgon of the Qing Dynasty

Portrait of Manchu Regent Dorgon of the Qing Dynasty

Reluctantly Surrendering to the Perfidious Qing Empire

King Li Zicheng grew increasingly dissatisfied with Wu Sangui’s delayed response and changing ideas.


Consequently, he led his army towards the Shanhai Pass, which Wu was garrisoning, with plans to seize this crucial military site.

Wu Sangui led about 50,000 soldiers to fight intensely against Li Zicheng’s around 100,000 warriors, while the Manchu Lord Dorgon refused to participate and kept observing. 

After fighting fiercely for a long time, when Wu Sangui’s army kept losing and retreating, the Manchu Lord Dorgon took about 80,000 strong cavalrymen, suddenly attacked Li Zicheng aggressively, and won.

Tens of thousands of soldiers died in this brutal battle. 

Li Zicheng was seriously hurt, and his Shun Empire declined dramatically after this war.


Before he retreated to other places, he executed Wu Sangui’s father out of fury.

Wu Sangui also suffered significant losses and was unable to compel the Manchus to abide by the agreement they had signed. Eventually, he surrendered reluctantly.

On the other hand, the Manchu regime seized this opportunity, went through the Great Wall, and moved their capital to Beijing. 

Their king Fulin moved to the Forbidden City and was enthroned as the Shunzhi Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

Royal Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties — The Forbidden City in Beijing

Royal Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties — The Forbidden City in Beijing

The Great Power and Wealth of King Wu Sangui

Manchu regime, now the Qing Empire, refused to follow the agreement with Wu Sangui, which regulated that the Qing and the re-established Ming divide and rule China separately and independently.

Qing kept expanding and unified most places in China, which also committed countless cruel massacres; Wu Sangui fought bravely for the Qing government and showed them his loyalty.

Wu Sangui, in the following decades, contributed significantly to Qing’s unification of the whole of the nation. 

In return, Wu Sangui was rewarded as the King of Yunnan and Guizhou Provinces. His son married an honored princess, the younger sister of the Shunzhi Emperor. 

Gold Saddle of Shunzhi Emperor that Decorated with Dragon Patterns and Gems

Gold Saddle of Shunzhi Emperor that Decorated with Dragon Patterns and Gems — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Wu Sangui's Final Betrayal of the Ming Empire

If what Wu Sangui did before was the consequences of complicated situations, wrong judgments, or sly but strong enemies, then killing Zhu Youlang made him a complete traitor to the Ming Dynasty.

Zhu Youlang (1623 — 1662), the grandson of the Wanli Emperor of Ming, was supported as the Yongli Emperor in 1646. 

After Chongzhen Emperor Zhu Youjian was sacrificed in 1644, some princes of the Ming royal family were supported to be emperors of other regimes of Ming in southern China, and the Yongli Emperor was the last of them.  

Many loyal generals, soldiers, and civilians of the Ming fought bravely but failed. 

After Wu Sangui occupied Yunnan Province and was granted the king, he tracked down and assassinated the Yongli Emperor on his own to show his remarkable loyalty to the Qing.


Moreover, the Yongli Emperor's entire family was executed.  

This behavior was long criticized and despised, making Wu Sangui the most devious and utter Ming Dynasty traitor. 

As a general of the Ming, he eliminated the last emperor and the last hope of those who still wanted to recover the Ming Empire. 

Monument in the Place (Bi Si Po) that Yongli Emperor Sacrificed

Monument in the Place (Bi Si Po) that Yongli Emperor Sacrificed — Kunming, Yunnan Province

Rebel War Against the Qing Dynasty

A few years later, when the Qing Empire's rule was stable, the current Kangxi Emperor planned to weaken and abolish Wu's political and military power. 

Wu Sangui was commanded to cut down large numbers of soldiers in his army and gradually hand over administrative, financial, and judicial authorities.

Then, Wu Sangui realized he was useless to the new emperor, who would remove everything from him.

In 1673, the Kangxi Emperor commanded Wu Sangui to migrate to other places far away, break up his elite troops, and transfer all of his authority to the Qing government. 

Then Wu Sangui initiated a rebel war against the Qing Empire. 

Some said that he was unsatisfied with having his power taken away.


Others noted that within his army, many people still wanted to recover the Ming Empire; as a chief commander, Wu Sangui couldn't let down those large numbers of his loyal soldiers.


Besides, having his troop reorganized meant tens of thousands of his warriors and their families would be demoted and suffer significant financial losses.  

Wu Sangui rebelled by expelling the nomadic Manchu regime and recovering the Ming Empire.  

Wu Sangui and His Army

Failure of Wu Sangui and His Allied Troops

Wu Sangui claimed that he secretly kept the son of the late Chongzhen Emperor; now, this prince has grown up, and it was time to assist this prince in re-establishing the Ming Empire. 

Therefore, many forces willing to restore the Ming Empire responded actively; they allied and fought bravely against the Qing Dynasty.

This was the Revolt of Three Feudatories that lasted for eight years.

In the first few years, everything went quite well. With his excellent military skills and extremely elite cavalry troop, Wu Sangui occupied almost half of China and kept winning.

However, Wu Sangui was too old. He passed away, old and sick, only five months after establishing his new dynasty and claiming himself emperor.

Without the excellent general Wu Sangui, the rebellion army lost very soon. Kangxi Emperor executed his oldest son, and his grandson committed suicide after the Qing defeated them. 

Part of the "Dong Weiguo Ji Gong Tu" that Described Qing's General Dong Defeating Wu Sangui's Rebellion, Painted by Artist Huang Bi in 1677

Part of the "Dong Weiguo Ji Gong Tu" that Described Qing's General Dong Defeating Wu Sangui's Rebellion, Painted by Artist Huang Bi in 1677 — National Museum of China

At that time, other forces wanted to recover the Ming Dynasty, but they were neither united nor well organized; instead, they all wanted to expand their benefits.

Therefore, though they had won several times, occupied nearly half of China, and obtained great support from large numbers of civilians, they lost all chances in the end, like Wu Sangui in Yunnan and Guizhou, Geng Jingzhong in Fujian, Shang Clan in Guangdong, and Zheng clan in Taiwan. 


Controversial and Widely Criticized Traitor Wu Sangui

Wu Sangui was a widely criticized traitor in the history of China for his betrayal of the Ming, the Shun, and the Qing. 

The victors wrote history.


Hence, it is hard to know precisely what Wu Sangui’s original intention was: to avenge his late emperor or maintain his benefit. 

An absolute and accurate comment was not always easy in history and consisted of complicated aspects. 

However, his choices did influence the history of China, took away countless lives, and caused considerable losses to all sovereigns he had pledged loyalty to. 

Hence, despite controversial situations, people of the Ming and Qing all considered Wu Sangui a big traitor.  

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